News that Peter Hain MP may face contempt of court charges in Northern Ireland is disturbing, but sadly not especially surprising.
Post-GFA Northern Ireland does not have a notably good record on free speech and privacy. Journalists such as Suzanne Breen and Henry McDonald have been put under pressure to reveal their sources, and MP Ian Paisley Junior has faced contempt charges after refusing to divulge confidential correspondence with a constituent.
Hain is facing prosecution under common law contempt charges for, essentially, being rude about a judge. In his memoir published earlier this year, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales described Lord Justice Girvan as acting as if he was “off his rocker” in a 2006 ruling.
The Attorney General of Northern Ireland is now pursuing Hain and his publisher Biteback publishing (run by Iain Dale) for contempt, claiming Hain’s comments “constitute unwarranted abuse of a judge in his judicial capacity that undermines the administration of justice in this jurisdiction, and consequently constitute a contempt of court” .
Essentially the suggestion is that we should not criticise judges, lest we shatter the faith of the wider community in the courts. Leave aside the obvious fact that Northern Ireland’s courts are not exactly seen as citadels of justice by many people in the country, and we’re still left with the notion that a branch of the state should be beyond criticism. This is a dangerous idea, and an absurd move by the Attorney General. No matter what your political allegiance, it is vital that Hain and Dail are supported.
Index on Censorship chief executive John Kampfner was a guest on Channel 4 news last night, discussing the free expression controversies surrounding BNP leader Nick Griffin’s forthcoming appearance on Question Time and the Twitter campaign against Jan Moir’s article on the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately. Watch it below (segment starts six minutes in).
Read journalism.co.uk’s Judith Townend’s round up of the argument here
“Would the BBC allow any other party’s spin doctors to appear anonymously?” asks Peter Hain in the Guardian, referring to the BNP’s “director of publicity” Mark Collett being introduced in an interview on Radio 1’s Newsbeat as merely “BNP supporter Mark”.
Well, yes. Yes they would. In 2006, the Today programme allowed Abu Izzadeen, a senior member of far-right Jihadist group al Muhajiroun a lengthy interview without identifying his senior status in the group. In fact, they went one better and neglected to mention he was a member of any group at all, allowing him to rant about Muslim anger without once questioning his credentials in speaking for Muslims. Izzadeen’s al Muhajiroun friend Anjem Choudary also frequently appears on BBC programmes. Bear in mind no one has ever voted for al Muhajiroun:the group believes democracy is blasphemous, and do their best to stop people voting.
Anyway, back to Peter Hain’s argument:
Furthermore, there is a distinction between those who have voted for the BNP and the party itself. In June, at the European election that triggered this BBC decision, many voted for the BNP as a protest against the mainstream parties at the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal. Few of these voters would recognise, still less endorse, the BNP’s virulent racism and its discriminatory policy towards black people, Muslims and Jews in Britain. The number of people in the UK who accept the racist and fascist agenda of the BNP must be far less than 1% of the population and there is no justification for giving them such an important platform.
I hate to say it, but I think Peter Hain’s one per cent is extremely optimistic. And if Hain is claiming that people vote for the BNP without knowing what they stand for, isn’t it better that the party be challenged in a public forum such as Question Time?